Friday, July 07, 2006

Pearl's The Poe Shadow an entertaining tribute

61. The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl. Fiction, 7-2, p. 367

The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl’s second book, is aptly named. Edgar Allan Poe isn’t a character in this novel—it begins soon after his mysterious death in Baltimore—but his life and literature cast a large shadow on every page.

Pearl’s first book, The Dante Club, was a New York Times bestseller.

Narrator Quentin Clark, a wealthy Baltimore attorney, is obsessed with Poe’s death and with protecting and preserving the writer’s reputation, which is unsavory at best. “His life was a regrettable failure,” writes Clark, summarizing newspaper accounts of the day. “He was a gifted mind who squandered all his potential. Whose fantastical and affected poems and weird tales were too frequently tainted by the fatal, miserable fact of his life. He lived as a drunkard. Died a drunkard, a disgrace and a blackguard who injured sound morals through his writings.”

While investigating Poe’s death in 1849 at the age of 40 (check the historical note at the end of the novel), Clark also sets out to establish the identity of Poe’s brilliant fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Was there a real-life model for Dupin or was he the product of Poe’s fertile imagination? It isn’t long before Clark has two candidates for the role; one who is helping him solve the circumstances behind Poe’s death, the other, also trying to solve the mystery, but who working at odds with Clark and Clark’s favorite as the contender for Poe’s role model.

The Poe Shadow is also concerned with what it means to pursue a passion--when does passion slip into irrationality or madness? Clark’s pursuit of a solution to Poe’s death threatens his engagement, his legal practice and his personal fortune. “But this story is not about me,” asserts Clark in the novel’s opening paragraphs. “It never about me . . . It was about something greater than I am, greater than all this, about a man by whom time will remember us though you had forgotten him before the earth settled. Somebody had to do it. We could not just keep still. I could not keep still.”

In a not-to-be-missed historical note, Pearl writes, “The Poe Shadow features the details about Poe’s death determined to be the most authentic, combined with original discoveries that have never before been published.” It's the passion for Poe that Pearl shares with his fictional narrator, and not the novel's mysteries, that makes The Poe Shadow come alive.

Sadly, the mysteries at the heart of The Poe Shadow are not to be solved in the novel, if ever. Although it is predictable at times, The Poe Shadow is an entertaining read and a fitting tribute to Edgar A. Poe.

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